Virgil Revisited

One of the most magical passages in the Aeneid occurs when the hero, in search of the golden bough that will allow him entrance to the Underworld, is shown the way by two doves, emblems of his mother, Venus. In David Ferry’s new translation, the moment unfolds as follows:

He stood there where he was and watched to see
What signs he might be given by how they went,
Alighting to feed a little, then flying a little,
Alighting a little again to feed on the grass,
Then flying a little way, and alighting again,
Then flying a little again, feeding and flying,
Keeping themselves just far enough ahead
So that they can be seen by him who follows….

With all translations of the Aeneid into English, extra words are needed to convey the meaning of the more condensed Latin; this passage in Virgil’s text takes only four lines. But it is what Ferry accomplishes—his delighted attention to the movement of the doves, teasing the reader forward, and again forward, along with Aeneas; and his confidence, as a poet, in this instance to take an even more expansive liberty while keeping the diction pure and plain—that makes this new translation such a marvel throughout.

Ferry’s previous outings with Virgil, in his matchless Eclogues and Georgics, had already convinced me that he has some sort of uncanny connection to the great poet. Especially when reading the Eclogues, one hears a new-old voice, as if Virgil had miraculously learned English and decided it might do as well as Latin. This kind of translation almost needs a new name, to distinguish it from all the other worthy efforts to bring the ancient poets to life: it is an iteration, another version, but also—perhaps, almost—the thing itself.

For centuries, schoolboys and girls “construed” Virgil into English. My own Latin education, which came too late to stick, required me to construe some lines from the Aeneid before a frowning, and then sarcastic, doorkeeper to a graduate program in literature. He seemed to regard my poor performance as no better than could be expected, and passed me on with a sigh. My point is that I am no scholar, and like the vast majority of readers I gratefully apprehend the likes of Virgil and Ovid through their English translators. In the twentieth century, the notable poets who devoted themselves to the task of translation were Rolfe Humphries (whose Metamorphoses remains my favorite) and Robert Fitzgerald, whose Aeneid (as his translations of Homer’s epics do) offers a fluid blank verse beauty somewhat absent in the more straightforward, unmetered version by Robert Fagles.

The poet lions Robert Lowell and W.H. Auden, while quite different in many ways, did have in common a classical education and a need to spar with and reinterpret, rather than translate, their ancestors. Notably, Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles” reimagines the scene from the Iliad in which Hephaestos forges the images on the shield. But instead of depicting scenes of a cosmological order and prosperity in time of peace, here Auden shows instead desolate landscapes of the twentieth century ravaged by war:

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down….

Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.

Auden, here as elsewhere, seeks to “correct” the ancients, as if they were naifs and optimists—an attitude too simple for him to have truly held, but that served its rhetorical purpose for the disappointed rage with which he chronicled contemporary horrors. In “Secondary Epic,” he reproaches, with “No, Virgil, no,” the imperial optimism of the Aeneid and conflates Caesar Augustus, the terrible “blond” conqueror who commissioned the poem from Virgil, with Nazis.

Robert Lowell often used the model of the Roman Empire for its many cautionary tales about warfare, ego, and general human folly. As a keen observer and critic of American public life, he well knew that the Aeneid had been embraced since the time of our founders as a kind of model American epic. Just as Aeneas and his Trojans left their scene of defeat and headed west across the sea, guided by Fate, to settle in a new land and establish Rome and empire, so, too, the Puritans left England, where they had been persecuted, sailed west, and founded a new City on a Hill—and its eventual entitlement to empire as well. Lowell found Roman-era militancy profoundly titillating as well as disgusting, which lends an air of shame to his meditations on the classical age throughout his work, including, memorably, in “Falling Asleep Over the Aeneid”:

And I stand up and heil the thousand men,
Who carry Pallas to the bird-priest. Then
The bird-priest groans, and as his birds foretold,
I greet the body, lip to lip. I hold
The sword that Dido used. It tries to speak,
A bird with Dido’s sworded breast. Its beak
Clangs and ejaculates the Punic word
I hear the bird-priest chirping like a bird.
I groan a little. “Who am I, and why?”

Virgil’s complex relation to how history unfolds always disorients readers, and not only the sleepy ones. Pious Romans believed that history was dictated by Fate, although in incidentals it was guided by the actions of the gods and of human beings. But Virgil’s technical discomfort with how this paradigm plays out in storytelling—where the suspense resides in not what will happen, but how, and where our foreknowledge might make us as readers too detached if the how is not gripping enough—results in, among other things, his famous use of the “historical present” throughout the poem. Again and again, he begins a passage in the past tense and then rushes into the present tense, as if asking us to forget the outcome and join the characters in the suspense of not knowing.

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